Editor's Notes: YES STARS beats a tonsorial Zionist gagfest

Sandler's new comedy is the most overtly pro-Israel movie to come out of Hollywood since Exodus.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
The critics have been mixed about You Don't Mess with the Zohan. The US box office take, edging close to $100 million three weeks after release, is middling - solid rather than spectacular. But in one aspect at least, we can be definitive about Adam Sandler's latest comedy: It has to be the most overtly pro-Israel movie to come out of Hollywood since, well, Exodus. It has been reported that some of the Arab actors who worked on the film were somewhat unhappy at its tone. I'm not surprised. I frankly cannot imagine how it will be viewed in the Arab world - if it gets there. Come to that, I'm intrigued to see how it will go down in the UK, that bastion of Zionist empathy, where it opens later this summer. In Israel, unsurprisingly, it is playing to packed and delighted houses. The truth is, it's a ridiculous movie, unsubtle, with an absurd plot, hammy performances and humor in frequently the worst possible taste. But for hyping heroic, fundamentally humane Israel, it is peerless. We're talking screwball comedy here, so it's a thoroughly superficial and slapstick Israel Sandler gives us, too - an Israel depicted against the modern soundtrack of "Hadag Nahash" but one still drawn from 1970s stereotype, a nation of homophobic macho chauvinists with exaggerated libidos, and ripe bikini-clad women, all getting along on a diet of humous, barbecued fish and "Fizzy Bubbelech" orange soda. The theme of ...the Zohan, though, is Israel's essential life-affirming goodness, a quality relentlessly contrasted, moreover, with almost unstinting Arab perfidy. Sandler's character is a lean, yet anything but mean, killing machine. He's very good at it, he knows it has to be done, but he really doesn't want to hunt down terrorists. What the toned, honed counterterror commando truly longs to do is cut hair - "silky smooth." (This patently absurd premise is apparently not quite that absurd; it was based on three genuine ex-IDF brothers who now run California styling salons.) The metal object Zohan cradles in bed is not his gun but his trimming scissors. The glossy magazine he pores over is not Guns & Ammo but the Paul Mitchell stylists' catalog. This central incongruity - Zohan the peerless warrior whose true passion is hairdressing - is played for laughs umpteen times in the movie. The contrast between the would-be peaceable Israelis and the invariably murderous Arabs is played for laughs as well. But that doesn't make it any less potent. THE FILM'S opening scenes show Zohan living it up on the beach at Tel Aviv, enjoying a jiggy respite from his undercover heroics. But that Arab predilection for violence intrudes immediately: Zohan must be dragged away from his carefree sun-drenched antics to be briefed on his latest assignment - recapturing the notorious Palestinian terrorist "Phantom." Recapturing? Yes, with jarring resonance for a modern Israel agonizing over the asymmetrical price of prisoner exchanges, Zohan, it turns out, has captured Phantom once before, but the Arab villain has since been set free by the government in exchange for various Israeli captives and so now must be tackled again. An hour and a half or so later, toward the very end of the film, Phantom reveals that he doesn't really live to kill, either. His thwarted vocation, he avers, is to be a shoe salesman. But this is a throwaway line, inserted as the film's loose ends are being tied up, long after Phantom's murderous characteristics have been internalized by the audience. For the intervening length of the movie, Sandler gives us an Israeli hero who fakes his own death at the hands of Phantom so that he can give up killing and follow his wash-and-cut dream to America, and a nemesis who achieves acclaim and riches in the Arab world for erroneously claiming to have murdered the Israeli. Zohan has barely set foot in America before he is standing up for a hapless cyclist, the blameless victim of a car accident. Meanwhile, the celebrity Arab terrorist - also depicted, incidentally, as a multiple bigamist, whose whole claim to fame of course is one big joke played on him by his smarter, tougher, braver, handsomer Israeli rival - opens a fast-food chain with an advertising slogan that includes the phrase "America is Satan." The movie is peopled by Israelis who are likable, hard-working and resourceful, if not always entirely law-abiding. Some of the Arabs are honest and decent, too, but many are terrorists, admirers of terrorists, or inept would-be terrorists, phoning Hizbullah hot lines for advice on building bombs. In a scene where Israeli and Arab shopkeepers are facing off against each other in New York, but tense relations are just starting to thaw, an Arab character complains that life is hard for Arabs in the US because everybody thinks they are terrorists. It's hard for us, too, one of the Israelis responds, and you wonder which Israeli fault is finally to be acknowledged. But no. The line he delivers is that it's hard for Israelis in the US... because they look like Arabs. Even the most redeeming of the Arab characters, the Palestinian woman who runs the salon where hairdresser Zohan gets his break, and who turns out, inevitably, to be both his one true love and Phantom's sister, is played by Canadian actress Emmanuelle Chriqui, who just so happens to be the Jewish daughter of Moroccan immigrants, and brought up Orthodox at that, with relatives in Israel. In another of the early scenes, Zohan gets a big laugh, and gets in another blow against violent Arabs when, combining superhero and party-clown capabilities, he dazzlingly pouches the avalanche of rocks thrown at him by Arab villagers and instantly sculpts them into a gray stone version of those little balloon dogs beloved at children's parties. But so evidently intent is the movie on championing Israel that it departs from this kind of broad and universal humor on occasion to supply what can only be described as a Zionist narrative. At one point in mid-chase, for instance, Phantom accuses Zohan and the Israelis of stealing the Arabs' land. Half to himself, and thoroughly audibly to the audience, Zohan retorts that the Jews have been living in these parts for thousands of years. Staggering stuff: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad misrepresentation of Israel as a colonial upstart despicably imposed upon the blameless Palestinians, as delivered to a worldwide audience last winter from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, demolished in a one-liner in a puerile Hollywood laughathon. The straightforward assertion of Israel's historic legitimacy that the massed statespeople of the UN could not muster, brought home to millions by a wisecracking comedian from Brooklyn. ...THE ZOHAN is simplistic and childish - though emphatically a film to which you should not take your children. It is less original than Borat, and sprinkled with Hebrew where Sacha Baron Cohen's movie could have qualified as Israel's foreign language Oscar entry. But it is remarkable because it makes for so radical a contrast to the usual negative diet of film on Israel - in news and in feature footage. Yet there's a far more insightful Israeli production currently playing in our cinemas - and on our TV screens. More uplifting, too. And far more improbable. I'm talking about the commercials for our local satellite TV company's YES STARS channel. If you've not had the pleasure, this brief clip - 60 seconds of satirical perfection - is set in Iran, and begins with "Ahmadinejad" proudly announcing on TV to his countrymen in Farsi: "My brothers, the uranium is in our hands," and so, "After Monday, Israel will be finished." The Iranian mullahs' brief, initial savoring of the prospect of Israel's imminent demise immediately gives way, however, to concerns about the future. Wait, worries the first maverick to rise at a meeting of Islamic clerics, if there is no Israel from Monday, what will become of that wonderful series that YES STARS has been screening that day? A chorus of protest rises from the coffee houses. Soon the masses are on the streets. "Call off the bombing," the mob urges the president. If YES STARS goes off the air, they warn, "There'll be chaos in Teheran." Demonstrators demanding their Israeli TV fix file past a street mural of the stern Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Bearded clerics raise their palms to the heavens in supplication. Black-clad ranks of Iranian women join in the outraged marches. Revolutionary guardsmen wave their machine guns along with the chanting, by now in Hebrew, and soon Ahmadinejad is persuaded of the error of his ways, and is shown dancing to what has become the celebratory chorus: "Never mind the bombings. Watch Israel's YES STARS. Great programs." At a time when Iran's anti-Israel incitement is reaching new heights, when Iran's uranium enrichment is indeed bringing the ayatollahs ever-closer to obtaining the means for their declared aim of Israel's destruction, when Israel has leaked word of its training missions for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, and false rumors of such a strike are capable of sending oil prices soaring, this short commercial underlines the very best qualities about Israel more accurately than Sandler's protracted tonsorial Zionist gagfest: In a region filled with hatred, forced to fight relentlessly for our very survival, Israelis have nonetheless managed both to retain our own humor and largely to resist the temptation to demonize even our most overt and bitter enemies. Even as the Iranian regime and its adherents attempt to dehumanize us, we, in that commercial, insistently humanize them. Even as their extremists glory in death, we insist on portraying the Iranian populace as ultimately wanting to enjoy life rather than end it. I'm not sure I'd even want Iranians to watch You Don't Mess with the Zohan. I certainly can't imagine they'd swallow the unsubtle propagandizing. But the YES STARS commercial? I wish it was playing daily in Teheran. I know that Iran's extremists could easily sustain their hatred for us even in the face of our evident good-natured ribbing. But the masses. Could they really resist just the hint of a grin?